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March Monotony

The only silver lining to a remarkably predictable first round of the NCAA tournament is that the second round should be full of exciting matchups

Here is a sampling of messages sent in The Ringer’s college basketball Slack channel on Thursday night, as the first day of the 2017 NCAA tournament drew to a disheartening close:

  • Today’s a bummer.
  • Honestly nothing interesting happened today.
  • Hopefully tomorrow’s games are fun.

Tomorrow came, and despite a couple flashes of excitement early in the day, tomorrow went, again without delivering the drama promised by a tradition named Madness. With more than half its games already played, the 2017 tourney is still waiting for a single shining moment to jump-start the sports world’s greatest annual event.

Friday night’s slate served as a microcosm of this development. Wichita State outlasted Dayton, 64–58, and Kentucky defeated Northern Kentucky by nine in a game it was never in danger of losing; each of the evening’s other six games ended with a double-digit margin, and seemingly close Miami–Michigan State and Marquette–South Carolina contests turned into 20-point blowouts. Throughout the night session, the most engaging conversation in Ringer Slack concerned the mid-aughts legacy of Marquette assistant Travis Diener. It was a boring end to a boring couple days of college basketball.

Boring doesn’t equal bad, per se, and the quality of play hasn’t disappointed. Michigan–Oklahoma State was a high-scoring thriller, UCLA gave its typically joyous interpretation of a modern offense against Kent State, and players from Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig (eight 3-pointers and 28 points) to South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell (29 points and 11 rebounds as a guard) impressed with their individual performances.

But the elements inherent to March — the upsets, the buzzer-beaters — have been absent, replaced instead by mere teases of the real things. Over the past two days, the largest underdogs flirted with the lead only to fizzle out in the second half, and Princeton and Vanderbilt squandered chances for last-second game-winners.

Only six lower seeds won, and they don’t strike the usual underdog image: Middle Tennessee State, Wichita State, and Rhode Island were favored in Vegas; Xavier was favored by KenPom; and USC and Michigan State aren’t quite the plucky athletic upstarts we’re accustomed to discovering in March. The games themselves have seen little end-game drama, too. According to FiveThirtyEight’s in-game calculations, only three contests saw the win probability seesaw between teams in the last few minutes. And only four of 32 games rated a 5 or higher on the site’s excitement index, a scale that ranges from 1 to 10; last year, 10 games from the opening round rated that well.

Theoretically, the unblemished record of the tournament’s top teams — no 1-through-4 seeds lost in the opening round for the first time in a decade — should catalyze more excitement the rest of the way, with no small-school survivors remaining for the top seeds to throttle. Spectating fortunes could change as early as Saturday morning, when Notre Dame meets West Virginia in a tactical battle and an underrated Wisconsin squad attempts to best defending champ Villanova.

March isn’t done for, just yet — the madness might not be missing so much as it’s been delayed. Through two days, though, the brackets aren’t busted and the buzzers aren’t beaten. After a year of wild, unfathomable sports occurrences, the strangest thing to happen to the NCAA tournament is no strangeness at all.